Sachsenhausen’s violence and Perlman’s violin

BERLIN.    Sunday mornings, like everywhere else, are slow days in Berlin.  The city that stayed up all Saturday till four in the morning is just beginning to stir.  But my guide is punctual as usual.  And so at eight in the morning of an overcast Sunday,  we make our way to the outskirts of this energetic city, to Oranienburg – where stands Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp deviously carved from the neighborhood of a harmless German village.

Sachsenhausen was opened by the Nazis in 1936 as a prison camp and as a factory unit.  Its inmates included communists, social democrats, trade unionists, liberals, pacifists, Jews, Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, criminals and everyone else that Hitler’s regime would consider “anti-social”.

More than 200,000 inmates were kept here at one point.  Those who were strong were put to work in factories within the camp.  Those who were too old or too young to work were summarily exterminated – their gold teeth and hair harvested from their bodies.  (The gold caps were melted, and the hair became cushion for furniture.)  There was a “shoe testing ground” here where prisoners were made to walk for hours, with a load on their back, to see how long the soles of new shoes would last.

Graphic artists and painters among the prisoners labored day and night to put out all kinds of fake bank notes, which were meant to be circulated in the economies of enemy nations.   All in all,  about one hundred thousand people were systematically murdered in the nine years that Sachsenhausen operated.  The lucky ones, mostly Belgian POWs, were shot in the target range, where Gestapo soldiers vied for the prize of  a few days leave if their bullets hit dead center of their victims’ hearts.

From the ranks of those who were not exterminated were drawn the unlucky ones who served as guinea pigs in the “pathologie” clinics of the dreaded Nazi doctors.  Such clinics served as the all-purpose laboratories of Germany’s research centers and universities throughout the war.

Here, patients were slowly deprived of oxygen to simulate conditions in which airplane pilots might sometimes find themselves.  Brains were shrunk, limbs severed and organs taken out from live “donors” for careful methodical examination. The Nazi medical scientists kept astonishingly detailed records of their morbid experiments.  These records now stand as an eloquent testimony to the incredible violence of their science.

“I’ll wait for you outside,” my guide said uncharacteristically when she saw me head for the basement below the clinics.  It was freezing outside, so I wondered if there was anything down there she was avoiding. This was where the mutilated bodies used to be dumped after they had served their scientific purpose.

It is now fifty years since these walls stood as mute witnesses to the victims of Nazi terror.  In the basement, there were no photos, no explanations.  There was only a sense of being contained, and stillness.  Here, for the first time, I think I understood what it meant to be a prisoner in a German concentration camp.

On the way back to Berlin, I sat sullenly in the car, wondering what the rest of the day could be like, with a depressing start like this.  “Don’t forget tonight’s concert,” Gisela Linz, my conscientious guide from the German Press and Information Office, tried to cheer me.  “I got us good seats.  I’ll pick you up at half past seven.”

I knew that Vladimir Ashkenazy was a great pianist.  What I didn’t know was that he has also been, since 1989, the conductor of the world-famous German Symphony Orchestra Berlin.  Slim, short, and silver-haired, he jogged to the conductor’s podium to the warm applause of  a huge friendly crowd.  The opening number,  Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances from Galanta — was totally unfamiliar to me.  Even so, the Hungarian melodies were engaging enough and easy to the ear.  But my thoughts remained hopelessly with Sachsenhausen.

I once remarked to a friend that my soul is probably so crude that music seldom affects me.  And indeed, I was beginning to feel that perhaps the concert, like good wine, was being wasted on me.  Then, it was Itzhak Perlman’s turn to play.  All of a sudden, the depressing day that began at Sachsenhausen began to lighten.

I knew he was a great violinist, one of the best interpreters of Tchaikovsky.  What I didn’t know was that he is a paralytic.  He flung both legs ahead of him as he approached center stage, heavy  on his crutches.  He was beaming like a child at the audience, which welcomed him with great affection.  Ashkenazy was behind him, carrying his violin with great reverence.

The program notes, all in Deutsch, were useless to me.  But, fortunately, Tchaikovsky’s Concert for Violin and Orchestra in D, opus 35, is listener-friendly even to barbarians like me.  And with Itzhak Perlman and his violin, music does become an accessible language.

As he played, it became clear to me that his violin spoke for all his murdered ancestors.  His music freed all the spirits that inhabit the cold dungeons in concentration camps everywhere.  Ashkenazy allowed him to soar freely without fear, restraining the response of the orchestra so that it would not interfere with this man’s act of lyrical liberation.  When he ended, the audience was stunned.  Then, like everyone else in that hall, I leapt from my seat and gave this genius a 12-minute standing ovation.  I felt so privileged that evening, thankful that, at last, music had spoken to me.


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